Work Capability Assessment

Social Security

I spent yesterday afternoon with the Labour Party Disabled Members Group discussing their ideas about the future of the Social Security system.  This was a group of people who rely on benefits in various ways, some to enable them to get to work, and some for everything.  When I get their  proposed amendments to the Labour Party policy proposals I will post them here.

Much of the discussion was about the Work Capability Assessment, which they found humiliating, intrusive and unnecessary. Although nobody mentioned the Spartacus Network Beyond the Barriers report their views and proposed solutions were very similar.  They found it hard to see why they needed to be repeatedly examined to see if their amputated limbs had grown back or if incurable degenerative diseases had miraculously reversed.  They dreaded transfer from Disability Living Allowance to Personal Independence Payments, which, as far as they were concerned, did not do what it says on the tin.

What they said about the ability to work was what I have heard elsewhere.  Physical disability, in itself, is a problem most people can cope with, if they can access enough support.  What mostly stops people working is pain, exhaustion, uncertainty and fear, none of which are helped at all by repeated testing.  It’s much easier to cope with a stable disability than one which fluctuates.  Much the biggest cause of incapacity to work is mental illness.  Nearly half of all claimants of incapacity benefits “are in the main disabling group Mental and Behavioural disorders”, and these conditions are the least amenable to objective assessment, especially by a stranger without access to your records.  One of the suggestions that came out of the group was that there should be a combined assessment process, conducted by the NHS, which related to benefits and support of all kinds.

Despite all the anxiety and fear created by the Work Capability Assessment it has had less effect on the total number of claimants than might be expected. The Work Capability Assessment is of course only the latest of many measures to tackle the supposed abuse of incapacity benefits.  In 1982 I was part of an initiative  to transfer unemployed disabled people, who were only expected to sign on once every 13 weeks on to incapacity benefit.  The Thatcher government was later blamed for this initiative, but I can testify it was nothing to do with them.  We intercepted people on their way into the Unemployment Benefit Office and persuaded them they would be better off on the sick. But most had been unemployed for years and looked likely to stay that way.  Like most sick people they wanted to work.

What really makes a difference to the number of people who claim to be incapable of work is the availability of work.  That is why claimants in Surrey are sicker than those in Sunderland.  In Surrey people with minor disabilities can get work.  In Sunderland they can’t.  In Sunderland it seems a perfectly rational decision for a sick person to abandon the idea of getting a job.

Underlying this debate of course is the assumption that people who claim benefits who are sick should get more money than those who are unemployed.  This is only one of many unexamined assumptions which perhaps merit re-examination.  The Social Security system gets much less public discussion than it merits, given how much public money is involved.  Reporting of Social Security issues, which is rare in mainstream media, is generally ill informed.